DVD Review: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd

SRP $34.99
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Edward Sanders, Timothy Spall

Unlike my lovely husband Jeremy, I am thrilled that the movie musical has made a comeback. He believes musical theater is as entertaining as a root canal, and nearly lasered me in half with his eyes when I dragged him to Enchanted, and the singing prince and princess appeared. I, on the other hand, have enjoyed the melodious vocal stylings of Carol Channing and her ilk since junior high–though I was listening to Skid Row and Miles Davis at the same time, thank you very much–and being something of a purist, one of my favorite things to do after watching a movie musical is count the ways in which the stage show is superior, though I do this with love. Usually.

Sweeney Todd, composer/lyricist Steven Sondheim’s notoriously gruesome Victorian slasher romp, languished in pre-production for years. Numerous actors were unofficially attached, including Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Tim Curry, Kevin Kline, and Warren Beatty. (Harrison Ford as a murderous singing barber? Really? Now that I would pay ten bucks to see.)

The story revolves around the title character, who has returned to London after escaping more that a decade of imprisonment on false charges. Todd’s grim fate was sealed when the vile and unscrupulous Judge Turpin fell for the young barber’s beautiful wife, and had to possess her at any cost. Upon his return to his former home, Sweeney Todd is informed by his former landlord, Mrs.Lovett, that his wife poisoned herself rather than submit to Turpin, and his young daughter Johanna is now imprisoned as the judge’s ward. This triggers a lust for revenge and eventually a killing spree; Todd slashes the throats of his customers, and the ghoulishly adaptable Mrs. Lovett bakes the victims into the tastiest meat pies in London. If the occasional lone restaurant patron slips upstairs for a shave, never to return, nobody seems the wiser.

Did I mention that you should absolutely not attempt to have dinner while watching this film? Consider yourself warned.

No actor today conveys creepy-sexy like Johnny Depp, though in his case, Helena Bonham Carter–as the widow Mrs. Lovett–gives him a run for his money. Both actors are in fine form in Sweeney Todd. They both look glamorously unhinged, with dark bottomless pools for eyes, and plumes of disheveled hair; as for the singing, they sound…alright. Johnny Depp labored mightily over his vocal parts before winning casting approval from Sondheim–a deal-breaker for Tim Burton, who agreed to direct only if Depp played the role. Bonham Carter is fine, though I doubt greatly that her vocals would stand up live. Granted, the Broadway inflections of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane rendered the film version of The Producers nearly intolerable, so this may be a bit of a pointless gripe. God, I’m a nerd. The cast is filled out by Alan Rickman, delectably villainous as Judge Turpin; Timothy Spall as the judge’s henchman; Sacha Baron Cohen as the scheming rival barber Pirelli; Jamie Campbell Bower as Todd’s aquaintance Anthony; and Jayne Wisener as the lovely, imprisoned Johanna.

The production is gorgeous, as one would expect of a Burton film. The film was shot in quasi-black and white, with dull tones of blue and gray and occasional splashes of brilliant color, and, of course, torrents of red blood. I am fairly easily repulsed, and I admit that my stomach turned now and then during some of the gorier scenes. By its nature Sweeney Todd walks a fine line between horror and whimsy: too black hearted for dark comedy, too droll for true horror. The story line employs many operatic conventions, including mistaken identity, love at first sight, thirst for revenge, and a tragic fate, and the conclusion is appropriately grim. There is one small plotline that I do wish had been concluded, as I do not care for loose ends; but over all this is one musical that should appeal as much to fans of torture porn as fans of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The full disk of bonus features on this special edition are worth the money, as there is indeed something for everyone: Sondheim fans, Burton fans, history buffs, obscure theater buffs, and those of you that would love to know just how to fake a throat-slashing for the camera. Missing is a feature on how to get your musical-hatin’ husband to sing along; for that I’ll have to wait for the super duper deluxe edition that is sure to appear five years from now on Blu-Ray. Right, Jeremy?

[Editor’s note: I’d rather get a root canal.]

Jill Lynch
For more reviews from Jill, and the rest of the Crimespree crew, check out the index of reviews.